Kaufman Adapts With Finesse

Image: whatculture.com
Image: whatculture.com

Words by Darren TYNAN

As a film, Adaptation never really begins or ends. Images and sounds may cease, but the concepts of beginning and end, of understanding, knowing, and conclusiveness, continue floating around in a kind of boundless filmic space.

Directed by Spike Jones and released in 2002, the film’s writer, Charlie Kaufman, throws another meta-narrative spanner in the works. Based on Susan Orlean’s non-fiction novel, The Orchid Thief, the film’s plot is driven by Kaufman’s own struggles in adapting the novel into a film, yet it also portrays the dramatised events of the novel as a sub-narrative.

Using trick photography, Nicholas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, Donald, and Meryl Streep brings Susan Orlean’s character to life, the Orchid Thief’s writer in the film and in real life. Susan is portrayed as a journalist who extracts information from orchid poacher John Laroche, and finds herself caught up in a potential career scandal.

The resulting combination is one exceptionally clever, humorous and curious film. It sometimes derails itself with self-mocking tangents: ‘It’s self-indulgent, it’s narcissistic, it’s solipsistic’, Cage says in the film, reflecting on his own character’s writing credibility.

The opening scene highlights Kaufman’s weariness in his search for originality; he doesn’t want to do ‘what works’ as a shortcut to success, but to have an original voice, if that’s possible at all. In a hilarious confrontation, Kaufman even mentions that he wants to write a film about human disappointment and how nothing happens in life.

Cage’s dialogue is fatigued as he talks about the maxims which he relies on to endure the pangs of his own existence. He mutters the kind of terse, uplifting phrases that are used as a defence mechanism to avoid the onset of banality or boredom: ‘I need to make the most of it’, and, ‘today is the first day of the rest of my life’.

‘I’m a walking cliché’, Kaufman sighs.

There’s something so recognisable about the way in which Kaufman tries to examine his own life and prove his significance. It’s a kind of oppressive self-imposed guilt – an apologetic disposition toward his sense of being. He poses the question – How do we begin to grapple with the intricacies of our own circumstances and predicaments, the course of all things leading up to a single moment? Knowing is something intangible and just out of reach.

‘I’ve been on this planet for 40 years, and I’m not closer to understanding a single thing’, he says.

The film expresses a strong desire to conclude, but it never does. Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories shape the subtext of the film, and there’s an implied necessity to adapt. None of us request to be born; we are thrown into existence and it’s our role to adapt to the environment, but as we fulfil our basic physiological needs, we yearn for more. We want to want something; we want to feel passionately about that something. We want to feel grounded and reassured in the unknowable magnitudes of life, yet we also desire an escape from our own incessantly circular thought patterns.

Kaufman is confronted with the immense anxiety of trying to understand the set of variables that have led him to a present moment in time, and finds it equally difficult to know which choices will shape his future as he feels trapped in his own body. The character of Susan Orlean laments similarly –‘There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size’. It doesn’t.

Adaptation is a special film because it leaves you with an insatiable kind of curiosity – it’s ironically tragic and beautiful at the same time. Kaufman offers the idea our own adaptability is not merely biological in an evolutionary sense – but very psychological. It’s intelligently scripted, playfully circular and well worth a watch, especially if you’re bored of adapting to Hollywood car chases and contrived dialogue.


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